On the eve of the annual basketball disagreement at Hec Ed between Washington and Washington State at 4 p.m. Sunday, it is a little uncomfortable to note the regard in which Pac-12 Conference basketball is held at mid-season is, while not exactly as low as whale poop, smellable from the surface.
For whatever faith you put in such things as computer rankings of conferences, the Sagarian compilation in USA Today this week ranks the once formidable Pac-12 ninth, which puts it behind the League of Women Voters, North Korea and Herman Cain. And just ahead of the Big Rock Candy Mountain Conference.
This is not necessarily shocking, given the departures of so many top players to the NBA, worlds such as Zalgaris (see Reeves Nelson, UCLA) and occasional graduation. It is, however, embarrassing.
Meanwhile, the West Coast Conference, historically the wearer of little-boy pants in Western hoops, is increasingly the studmuffin. Thursday night, its top two teams, Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, went at it in Moraga, CA. for another episode in the region’s best rivalry. As Gonzaga center Robert Sacre told the Spokane Spokesman-Review, “They hate us and we hate them. It’s a love-hate relationship. They make us better. We make them better.”
Apparently, St. Mary’s made Gonzaga a lot better by crushing the 21st-ranked Zags 83-62. But regardless of outcome, Sacre at least talked the rivalry talk.
Basketball fans locally aren’t hearing anything like that this week, a supposed “rivalry week” for Washington that really isn’t. As was the case Tuesday with Seattle U. and Cameron Dollar, Washington State is coached by a former UW assistant, Ken Bone. The mutual love and respect theme of the Lorenzo Romar coaching tree is second only to a “Sgt. Pepper” Beatles tribute band.
Romar likes Bone so much that this summer, he took a little family vacation to Pullman just to hang out with Bone and his family. Not sure that would happen with the coaches at Louisville and Kentucky.
Not only is there no personal animus, the schools that genuinely don’t care for each other, Gonzaga and Washington, refuse to play. So in this part of the country, when it comes to anticipation regarding a match-up, until Seattle U. gets consistently good, we are left to our imaginations. The Zags have to import an out-of-region opponent each December to generate hoops buzz.
Thin as the rivalries are, so is the Pac-12 talent level. Romar Friday used a wasteland analogy to try to explain the Pac-12 woes. He said it was like a garden whose harvestable vegetables had been taken away.
“Nothing happens until things blossom again,” he said. “Over the past few years, so many stars have moved on, some to the NBA, and we haven’t replaced them yet. There’s also been a lot of different coaches.”
While it’s true that the stars of last year’s teams, Washington’s Isaiah Thomas (Sacramento) and Washington State’s Klay Thompson (Golden State) have moved on to the NBA, the same thing happens with premier talents in every conference. Somehow, the re-seeding has proceeded more slowly along the left side of the continent.
Certainly, freshman guard Tony Wroten has dazzled, but Washington as a team still managed to lose at home to South Dakota State — by 18. The Cougars these days are led by Brock Motum, a 6-10 junior forward from Australia whom no one has mistaken for Tom Chambers. He couldn’t keep the Cougs from their own clank, a 64-63 nonconference loss to UC-Riverside last month, as well as an overtime conference loss at woebegone Utah last week.
In the larger hoops picture, the loss of quality amusement may be a trifle. The bigger deal is that the Pac-12’s weak showing in non-conference games has numbed its chances for at-large bids come NCAA tourney selection time. The non-conference portion of the schedule is done and gone, so Pac-12 can’t play catch-up against itself, because it doesn’t have any elite teams to beat.
“There is some concern for long term,” Romar said, referring to the March selections. “We’ve made our bed, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. The only thing we can do it is get better. It doesn’t change our approach.”
True enough, but the consequence may be that the only Pac-12 team in the tourney this year will be the one that gets the automatic seed by winning the conference tourney.
Talk about one-and-done. There’s still a couple of months left, but the Huskies (10-6) and Cougars (9-7) would do well to get a bloom on, starting Sunday.